Some people are great with them. Some are not. If you're reading this, you probably aren't.
But what if:
You're at a work event and your best work friend runs to the restroom and leaves their son with you?
The BBQ you're hosting just started and you notice a kid watching you put together a sun awning?
Your new boyfriend just showed up to brunch with their daughter because the other parent is very sick?
You talk with them!
It's ok. Kids are just little humans. You were a kid once. People talked to you. You can talk to kids!
Treat Them Like Kids... Not Like That
Let's get the three "don't"s out of the way first.
Don't underestimate them.
Kids are smart. Their brains are constantly learning, so they sop up everything presented to them.
They notice details you might not, and they'll make connections that adult brains push aside.
Don't use "the voice."
You know "the voice." It's the same high-pitched voice used when talking to kittens and puppies. It's called infant-directed speech, and it has a purpose — for infants.
If you would have felt insulted being spoken to in that voice, so will the kid you're speaking to. Avoid "the voice" with any child 4 years or above.
And don't ever touch them unless you have explicit consent.
The only exception is if they are in danger.
Meet the child at their eye level. Big people are scary!
Keep your body language welcoming and open.
Face the child, so they can see your smile!
Don't cross your arms. You can wave!
If your name is difficult for the child to pronounce, kindly repeat it after they try saying it.
If it seems the child might have difficulties like a lisp, do not draw attention to it and just get as close as reasonable.
Check that you say the child's name correctly.
Elizabeth is meeting her coworker's son, Adar. Adar seems to be about 5 years old and is missing his front teeth. Elizabeth kneels and says "Hi, Adar! My name is Elizabeth." Adar says "Hi Ebeff." How should Elizabeth continue?
Well, now that you know each other's names, you need to keep the conversation going:
Let the kid take the lead in topics.
Have they shown interest in a topic?
Ask about themselves and what they like and do.
"Big words" aren't bad, but provide context if you use them.
Right now is when their brains are making strong language connections, so they are sopping up all of your words like a sponge.
Be genuine. Kids don't always understand sarcasm, but many can figure out if you're uninterested.
Good topics of conversation
How things work
Are you or the kid in the middle of making something?
Is there any large machinery or attraction around you?
Do they have a pet?
Are you in an outdoor environment with animals?
Movies, music, and TV shows
Are you watching something?
Do you know if the kid is on a team?
Are you watching a game?
Summer is putting together an awning to provide shade for her BBQ. Her friend and his kid, Sage, arrived early to help with the food. Sage keeps moving closer to Summer, and has been silently looking at the tools she uses. How should Summer respond?
Kids may say things they shouldn't in conversations, whether it's a faux pas, a gaffe, or something harmful. As an adult, you are in a place to minimize damage now and in the future.
If they say something hurtful to you:
"Ugh, your clothes are ugly!"
Be genuine. Tell the child that they hurt you and why. It's OK to draw a boundary, including stopping talking to the child.
If they share private or embarrassing information:
"Dad takes huge poops every night!"
If the information is just private or embarrassing, don't make a big deal of it. Kindly let them know that they shared something that is often private. Change the topic of conversation.
If they say something racist, sexist, or other -ist:
"Girls can't be doctors!"
Children repeat what they hear. Not only do you have more information about their parents or caretakers, but you have a chance to affect the kid for the better.
Depending on the age of the kid, use any combination of these techniques:
Point out that this is untrue (and not nice).
Provide examples of why their statement is incorrect.
Ask them why they think/say that.
It's also appropriate to draw a firm boundary with the child, including stopping talking to the child.
If they start crying:
Be honest: Did you do something? If so, apologize, both now and when the child calms down.
If not, don't worry. Crying is often a reaction to being overwhelmed or uncomfortable.
If the parent or caretaker is there, let them take over. Ask if you can do anything to help and follow through.
If the parent or caretaker is not there, keep the child and others safe.
Offer a cup of water. Drinking stops the momentum of a crying jag.
Is something in the environment overwhelming? Remove it or help the kid go someplace calmer.
If they share information about abuse, harm, or danger:
Take appropriate steps to make sure the child is safe and report it to the appropriate helpline or police in your area.
How To Respond?
Aafiyat is having brunch with her boyfriend Paz. He brings his daughter Soliel to their brunch date. This is their first meeting, and Paz assures Aafiyat that the other parent is ok with this. Soliel seems to be about 9 years old.
Aafiyat follows the advice above and she and Soliel start discussing what's better: unicorns or merfolk. Soliel is firmly on team merfolk. Then Soliel says:
"Unicorns are only for gross poor kids who can't have their own horses."
Paz chokes on his drink and is trying to figure out what to say.
Aafiyat takes a second to collect her thoughts. She grew up poor, so this stings personally. She will figure out if Paz has similar classist thoughts later, but for now, what is a good way to respond?
Choice 1 - Wow. That's hurtful. I don't know why you thought that poor kids are gross. I grew up poor. Am I gross?
Choice 2 - That is really not a kind way to think about poor kids. What makes you think poor people are gross?
Choice 3 - It's really not kind or right to think badly about people because they don't have much money. If we're going to continue with this, I'd rather just eat my pancakes.
In the scenario above, how can Aafiyat respond to Soliel?
You don't need to feel intimidated by talking with your friends' and colleagues' kids.